Category Archives: Sofia

Borisova Gradina / Борисова Градина

June 22, 2016

It’s the first day of summer and we spent hours of it in Sofia’s oldest park, Борисова Градина (Borisova Gradina, Boris’s Garden). The park was actually begun in 1884, several years before Tzar Ferdinand became Bulgaria’s ruler, let alone married and had a son named Boris. Tzar Ferdinand was an accomplished botanist so it is likely he took an avid interest in the park’s development. The park is large and varied, old and new, planned and wild, for leisure and athletics, frequented by all ages.

Парк на СвободатаDuring the communist period, the park was renamed. As communists are known neither for their sense of humor nor their sense of irony, they renamed the park Парк на Свободата (Park na Svobodata, Freedom Park) and in 1956 stuck a large monument there called Братска Могила (Bratska Mogila, Brotherly Mound). Hence Freedom Park in Bulgaria’s capital memorializes Soviet “partisans” who died fighting fascism. Whether for or against communism generally or the USSR specifically, it was clear to all Bulgarians that they were in no way free of their Soviet “big brothers.” Someone has now painted a graffiti red star where the official red star used to be. It’s hard to know whether using a red star as graffiti is honoring the original intent or mocking it.

Borisova Gradina is bordered on the southwest by Dragan Tzankov Boulevard and on the northeast by Tzarigradsko Shossay. We began our walk at the top of the park at Орлов Мост (Orlov Most). There the manmade Lake Ariana hosts paddle boats and rowboats in the warm weather and a skating rink in the cold. The plaza is lined with cafes and with vendors selling ice-cream, popcorn, and freshly squeezed juices. The fragrance of linden trees gently accompanies you enter the long alleys into the park itself.

чистачThe park is maintained, but not to a stellar degree. There is someone mowing the grass around the playground and someone raking. The playground is large, but has not been painted in anyone’s memory. The fountain’s water is cold and fresh, but half of the spouts on the old fountain have stopped working. The benches are plentiful, but peeling and scattered. Nonetheless it is a living park. It is not an immaculate thing for promenades and for attention paid. The lamps remain as beautiful as when they were first installed.

bench fountain lamp

колаChildren can pedal a toy car, and at three leva for 15 minutes you can easily say yes to this treat every day. Or they can follow, frighten, and feed the pigeons who charge nothing for this entertainment. The pigeons seem to enjoy обикновени бисквити (ordinary biscuits). These are made by many companies. Nestle calls theirs житен дар (wheat gift) and the pigeons were happy to have their gift crumbled and thrown to them.


гълъб и момче

вестникYou can pull the benches wherever you have a mind to and read the paper. Or let your baby sleep in the fresh air.





You can walk to the lily pond and perhaps come across a policeman directing not traffic but horses to drink at a nearby fountain.

полицай и коне


Everywhere you turn, there is another path, reminding one of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Take one path and you see a perhaps forgotten partisan with his children, another and you see an outdoor concert stage.

партизан сцена

There are many busts of Bulgarian literary figures. I find myself often surprised when doing the almost inadvertent calculation and realizing how young so many of them died, how fierce and worn by life the sculpted faces appear.




There are many small clearings, gazebos, small structures, where people can find themselves private spaces in the midst of the big city park. Or one can always lean a bike next to the appropriate trees and sling a hammock for an afternoon nap.




тенис център3

In the midst of the most wild, most untouched parts of Borisova Gradina, there are very well kept clay tennis courts where a summer youth tennis camp is currently underway. Not far away the Republic swimming complex that was my husband’s favorite as a boy has been completely abandoned. We hope it gets a second life, but we’re not too hopeful this will actually happen.






From time to time on the dirt footpaths with old growth trees towering overhead, you see a small wooden bench to surprise you with its contemplative possibilities.




Коколандия1Keep walking and eventually you come to Коколандия (Kokolandia), a children’s paradise. A brilliantly planned series of rope and wood courses differentiated by difficulty, it is a modern entertainment and sport that blends seamlessly in and with the surrounding forest. It is modestly priced, creatively structured, and requires of children of all ages ingenuity, strength, and resourcefulness.


And as the sign says, “There is no WiFi…only secure ropes.”




Our son fell asleep on a nearby bench after his exertions. Earlier I had lain on the grass looking up at a nearly cloudless blue sky through the branches of the tree providing me with shade. Contentment is never a bore. Borisova Gradina never disappoints.






Nellie / Нели

old Sofia mapFor two years, we lived on Han Krum Street. Han Krum or Khan Krum is something like a founding father in Bulgaria. He led the First Bulgarian Empire at the turn of the ninth century and is probably best remembered for instituting the first written laws in his people’s history, mostly along the lines of no drinking, no stealing, and no lying. Like all good monarchs, Han Krum—aka Krum the Fearsome—vastly increased the territory over which he ruled. He defeated the Bulgarian arch nemesis the Byzantine Empire and made it as far north, east, and west as Hungary and Ukraine. He died before he could attempt taking Constantinople, though his preparations were apparently well underway. A map of Sofia marked “Plan of Sofia 1887-1912” shows the street with the name of “Tzar Krum,” but really the first Bulgarian leader with that title was Simeon the Great who won it after his own defeat of the Byzantines. It’s odd to see a map purporting to represent a city undergoing near constant change and development labeled as though frozen in time for 25 years.

Actually many maps use the name Tzar Krum Street well into the 1930s and so do the engraved words in the wall at William Gladstone Street, Tzar Krum Street’s north terminus. Perhaps the Communists changed the name not for historical accuracy but instead to remove monarchical presence of every kind. Having ousted the royal family, the change of a street name was likely a simple matter.

Sofia, like all cities, continues to change even as there are streets and buildings in the city center still recognizable from photographs a century old. Though car ownership has skyrocketed since the political changes of 1989, the garages that could be housing them have generally been converted to stores and offices and ateliers, perhaps nearly as many as those built specifically for those uses. All the garages of our small apartment block save one had been converted. One of these now serves as a плод и зеленчук (fruit and vegetable store). Tall and smiling black-haired Nellie presides.

In two years of daily shopping, I never saw anyone working there but Nellie. Her husband Sasho was sick, so much so that not only could he not help her but frequently could not even take care of their large, brown dog. The dog therefore is often in the tiny back room or curled up behind the desk that serves as Nellie’s office. Behind the desk, she watches movies, usually American children’s movies dubbed into Bulgarian, when business was slack. She has an identical twin who I never met. Nellie is not merely tall, but had a certain heft that one doesn’t associate with a purveyor of fruits and vegetables. Periodically she comments self-deprecatingly on her need to lose weight. “I used to be the thin one,” she said, “then my sister lost weight and I gained what she lost.”

We talked almost daily. I would wait until there was a break in customer traffic. The store was so tiny this necessitated a delicate dance with the one or two other customers who might be positioned between the crates, peering closely at apples imported from Greece or which bunches of green onions appeared the freshest. We talked about Clinton (she didn’t like him, didn’t find him sincere) and Obama (she felt enthusiastic). We talked about Bulgaria’s endemic bureaucracy and endemic corruption and how those might be entwined. We talked about her husband who she always referred to as “the boy” and “the poor thing.” When I visited a couple of years after we moved back to DC, she told me Sasho had passed away the year after we left.

white vanNellie has a round, childlike face and short-cropped hair only just beginning to show some flecks of white. She is younger than me, but she has a grandson just a few years younger than my son. Despite her daily, lonely grind, despite her sick husband, Nellie smiles a lot. Her eyes crinkle up, she laughs aloud, and she lets you know without actually saying it that the world was ever thus and ever will be so why complain. Her dog curls up on the floor. Her white van is parked out front, visible even in DC when I look the address up on GoogleMaps.

She knows her fruits and vegetables. She used to be an x-ray technician before the hospital downsized and before that a furniture maker, but now it’s the fruit and vegetable stand and she doesn’t look back. If you ask, she tells you what is Bulgarian-grown vs. a Greek import, which apples are the firmest, when the tiny sweet seedless oranges known as мандаринки (mandarinki), often with the stems and bright green leaves still attached, will be available. She advises you to buy the French-grown potatoes. Once I saw a neighbor point to some fresh apricots and ask Nellie, “Do they speak Bulgarian?”

Iranian datesNellie introduced me to large, fresh, soft, candy-sweet dates imported from Iran. The dates are a bit expensive for many and she doesn’t have a big demand for them, but she would make sure to have a box or two on hand whenever I asked. In the winter, she and many market stands and small stores have vats of pickled vegetables, but you have to plan in advance and bring your own empty jars to fill.


Sometimes I’d discover in the midst of cooking something that I was missing a key ingredient and was able to run downstairs, buy it, chat with Nellie, and return before the contents of the pot even started to simmer.

My daughter took riding lessons when we lived on Han Krum Street and often went herself, quite early before her lesson, so that she could go into the barn and feed the horses, avoiding the small white one whose stall sign warned he was a biter. She made sure that she had some coins, asking Nellie en route which apple or carrot was the best for horses. Nellie agreeably advised for even this request of her fruit and vegetable expertise, “Пиленце (Peelentze), little chick, the horse will eat any one you choose,” holding in her laughter until reporting to me later.


The Palace of Sports

Пламен Атанасов

After ten months of whining that I wasn’t exercising after years of regular gym attendance, I finally walked into the Sportna Palata, the pool and fitness center attached to the Ministry of Physical Education and Sports building, and turned myself over to personal trainer Plamen. Other than a few weeks here and there, for the rest of our stay I went five days weekly to the basement gym. It was just a ten-minute walk away and I felt I was in the best shape of my life—largely due to the fact that I wasn’t left to my own devices and Plamen deftly contrived an ever-changing fitness program.

Спортна Палата

The fitness center at the Sportna Palata does not have the most luxurious surroundings or the latest equipment, but the staff is made up of knowledgeable and warm professionals and the atmosphere couldn’t have been friendlier. That is, in the fitness center itself.

The expansive locker room above the fitness center has banks of showers, a wonderful sauna, one squat toilet, one quiet cleaning woman/attendant who is fond of needlepoint, and one not so quiet cleaning woman/attendant who did not like the fact that I used the locker room to change into my fitness gear. Perhaps a week or two after I started, she came to me and asked if I was using the pool. I said no. She then questioned why I was changing in the “pool” changing room. I assured her that I had paid for the fitness center. “Oh no,” she asserted, “they have nothing to do with us. There is a changing room there.”

Well, that’s true in a manner of speaking, but the basement changing room is simply a closet with a curtain, less than ten lockers, and not even one squat toilet. So I explained that I preferred changing in the larger room, using the one toilet in the entire building and then taking all of my belongings downstairs. She retreated. After somewhat nervously confirming with Plamen my right to use the upstairs locker room, I felt better. For sometime after, I was happy to see that the attendant ignored me when she saw me there during her shift.

Weeks passed and then, as if all was new, she approached me in the locker room and asked if I was using the pool. This time, I felt assertive and, looking deliberately around at the nearly empty room, asked if I was bothering anyone. “Oh no, of course not,” she was quick to answer. And didn’t I have the right to use the toilet?, I asked. “Of course, there’s only the one,” she reassured. I take all my belongings downstairs, I pointed out, and I change back into my street clothes there as well. Was I causing a problem?, I challenged. “No, no, of course not,” and she backed away.

At that point, she started a sweetness campaign that baffled me, greeting me the next time with “Hello little dear, how are you?” and using the familiar form of “you” that is used only between relatives, friends and colleagues. Over the coming days, the sweetness campaign progressed to greetings of “My little one, little golden one.” Upon Sportna Palata’s re-opening after a two-week summer closing, I entered to find her waiting with open arms as if to hug me and I instinctively stepped aside, though normally I strive to be as polite as possible.

My husband contends this approach is a form of manipulation, used particularly by those guardians of the gates (e.g., porters, security personnel, attendants) who feel they justify their presence in their positions by zealously exerting control. His cousin suggests that this is the way a person of relatively low status “feeds the soul.” The control and/or soul-feeding continued. The saccharine applied intensified as the week progressed. By the end of the first week back, she was positively a fan, “I’m filled with admiration for you, you come so regularly.” This continued, addressing me as “daughter” even as she assiduously searched for opportunities to admonish me—for washing my hands with the bar of soap left on the sink by the toilet, for letting my bare feet touch the floor while I changed, (Q: “How can I take off my pants otherwise? A: You put your ass on the bench.) and other sins.

There is no smoking allowed in the building, which is used particularly for the large pool and the swimming classes for all ages. And so what seemed like the entire Sportna Palata cleaning/attendant staff, men and women alike, smoked like fiends just outside the door of this building dedicated to healthful activity while children scrambled in and out. My son began going to swimming lessons shortly before he turned five and my daughter joined a class for older children some months later; the quality of the teaching staff was excellent and both children made great progress. To get to the fitness center in the basement, I had to walk along the length of the Olympic-size pool. It was always a treat to see a group of young girls training for their synchronized swimming team while their coach beat out a rhythm with a rod or eager pre-schoolers in the small rear pool dedicated to beginning swimming lessons.


Having finished swimming—be it laps or lessons or synchronized training—it was apparently a requirement to blow dry one’s hair. There is something indescribably sweet seeing grandfathers and fathers assiduously blow drying their young children’s hair in the unshakable belief held by all Bulgarians I have ever met that no matter the season or temperature cold and flu viruses immediately target, in the manner of heat-seeking missiles, anyone with wet hair, and thereupon immediately strike without mercy.

1980 JulyOf course, not everyone has the time, resources or inclination to go swimming or to a fitness center. But Bulgarians believe strongly in the constitutional, the physical and mental benefits of a walk. Let’s take a walk, let’s walk there, no matter that we’re early or s/he is late—we’ll walk around. It’s an airing out, it’s getting the kinks out of your legs, it’s clearing your head, it’s time for food to digest, and it’s an opportunity to talk to friends. Everyone loves to walk. I have to go pick up my daughter at school—no problem, I’ll walk with you. You don’t know where that is?—we’ll take a walk and I’ll show you. National Geographic’s July 1980 article observed that “everywhere in the country—it is practically a national pastime—Bulgarians walk.”


Nicely paired with the value of the walk is the cult of “clean air.” Many locations rise and fall in Bulgarian estimation depending on the assessment of the air’s cleanliness. In the late 19th century, beloved Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov founded the Bulgarian tourist movement with calls to “Sofia lovers of nature” to re-energize themselves physically and mentally by climbing Mount Vitosha. Mountain air is lauded for its clean air, critically important for physical and mental health. Mountain hiking is a strong part of the national ethos. But even in Sofia, even on the coldest winter days, windows in homes and offices will be repeatedly opened for “clean air.” Different neighborhoods will be valued according to their reputation for having more or less clean air. With no apparent irony, even passionate cigarette smokers (Konstantinov was among them) often use weekends to flee the cities for the mountains’ health-giving clean air and then light cigarettes as they sit peacefully at the summit.

Considering his plea to get out of the city for one’s health, Konstantinov might have been surprised to find that Sofia has been proclaimed the European Capital of Sport 2018. I hope the cleaning woman at Sportna Palata is prepared for the influx into her domain.

Спортна Палата вън

Sedmochislenitzi, the Center of Sofia

Sedmochislenitzi (Seven Saints) is a park and playground located almost dead center in Sofia. It is named after the church of the same name standing in the park’s main square. We’ve been there countless times. A long market with many vendors borders one side on Graf Ignatiev Street. From fall into winter, there are not only seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables, but also pumpkins split in half, baked and sprinkled with cinnamon and walnuts. In mid- to late summer, you can buy clear, plastic drinking cups filled with raspberries and eat them with a tiny plastic fork. Summers, my son likes to stop at the corn vendor who sets up her cart at the park’s entrance and get an ear of the steamed corn that is a popular snack. On the beach, vendors carry coolers, tongs, salt shakers and napkins, walking among the sunbathers calling “Tzarevitza molya” (“Corn please”).


The church’s site as a place of worship long predates its current incarnation. Before the Sedmochislenitzi church, there was the Koca Mehmed Paşa Mosque, built in 1528 and named after its patron and builder Sokollu Mehmed Paşa. Mehmed Paşa was originally from a small town in Bosnia, but he rose steadily and at age 59 reached the pinnacle of Grand Vizier, thus holding nearly absolute power and answerable only to the Sultan himself.

The Koca Mehmed Paşa Mosque began its evolution to the Sveti Sedmochislenitzi Church when on September 30, 1858, an earthquake struck just after noon prayers began. Although the epicenter was to the south, the magnitude seven earthquake caused severe damage in Sofia. The French Le Mémorial d’Aix reported that the earthquake “destroyed 35-40 stone houses, 20 minarets, a mosque, the barracks, and the local telegraph office.” More than three weeks after the earthquake, reported Le Mémorial d’Aix, the aftershocks had not stopped and “the entire population had taken refuge in the squares and in the gardens.” The minaret of the Koca Mehmed Paşa Mosque was one of those that collapsed. The mosque had to be abandoned.

Петко Каравелов

After Bulgaria’s 1878 liberation from the Ottoman Empire, the building was used as a military warehouse and prison. Bulgarian Prime Minister Petko Karavelov was imprisoned for three years in the mosque cum prison when his political opponents used various 1887 garrison uprisings as an excuse to get him out of the way. Back in power for the fourth and final time, he quite naturally led an effort to close the building and convert it to a church. The exterior maintains the three rows of thin dark red brick alternating with one thicker layer of stone, the original white mottled gray and brown with age, characteristic of medieval mosques and churches.

гроб на Каравелов

Less than a year after the church conversion was completed in 1902, Petko Karavelov died and was buried there. His grave and that of his wife abut the church building and are enclosed by wrought iron gates. There is no church cemetery. The asphalt plaza surrounding the church is full of young children racing past on bikes and scooters. Balls often bounce onto the grave and have to be retrieved.

Иван Михов Николов

My son was fascinated by the Orthodox priests we saw go in and out of Sedmochislenitzi Church. Bearded and often with long hair tied in a low ponytail, their black robes go down to their ankles. Orthodox priests may marry and we frequently saw a priest out walking with his wife and young children. Several times at my son’s request, we walked into the church. On one of these occasions, an elderly priest with a full head of white hair greeted us and saw his interest in the bouquets of flowers set in vases. Father Ivan Mihov Nikolov gently took his hand, guided us to a small side room, and gave him several flowers from a vase there.

woman selling flowers

You can easily buy flowers from a florist store or streetside stand, but people often buy from one of the many older women who sit on packing crates near busy corners and in front of store windows. They sit behind large vases of different flowers and a few already made bouquets set down on the pavement. Such women specialize in flowers and are buying them wholesale to resell. Other older women set themselves up on packing crates near busy corners with what they’ve brought from their home gardens in nearby villages. They set up their wares on a box or a cloth and they don’t need much room. Year-round, they come with what they have on hand. A big ball of celery root with its green shoots, two or three bags of dried legumes, and a few parsnips— pasternak in Bulgarian, just like the Nobel prize-winning author of Doctor Zhivago. A small bouquet or two of flowers, rose hip berries, bunches of parsley, preserves in re-used jars from long ago store-bought products, dried herbs collected from walks in village fields and mountains, liter bottles once filled with cola now with whole milk you must boil once you bring it home.

We enjoy Sedmochislenitzi as part of a large park with cafés at either end, gardens, playground, and enough car-free asphalt to allow city children to get full use of bicycles, skateboards and skates. The children play, we talk. Life at Sedmochislenitzi has an easy pace.

L&Y Sedmo Chislenitzi

One Saturday, we went to Sedmochislenitzi. When we arrived, as often happened, a wedding was in progress and the wedding party was being photographed. This does not deter children, including mine, from skateboarding, running, jumping, chasing pigeons, biking, while the big day is being celebrated. No one minds—no one even comments or seems to notice. Elderly people hobbling through the park with canes are not deterred from slowly passing through as the bride is posing against the church walls and I’m quite certain there are wedding albums that include my daughter, son or both. Friends of both children were either already there or showed up shortly, and all had a grand time running around the church and playground. Then the proverbial “circle of life” showed itself as the wedding party dispersed. The next event on the Sedmochislenitzi church schedule was a funeral.

The priest began a prayer. Completely oblivious to the proceedings, my son and a friend were practically touching the hearse as they played. The casket inside was clearly visible as the windows were not blackened, smoked or otherwise made opaque. In the open casket, the dead man’s head was raised up on a pillow, able to be seen clearly by not only me but by the children. The presiding priest stood looking at the casket and crossing himself. The children on the playground kept playing and the adults seemed entirely unperturbed by the proceedings. The day warmed up considerably from the morning’s chill, the sun shone and we stayed on at Sedmochislenitzi for several hours before returning home.

Concrete Jungle, Bulgarian Style

In 1987, I had my first glimpse of the ubiquitous concrete, pre-fab, no architecture required, block apartment complexes that the Communists propagated throughout the USSR and Eastern Europe in a mad drive to house as many people as possible. Driving from the airport in the small yellow Moskvich car that my husband’s family had waited ten years to purchase, I saw a mural nearly covering a side of one of the blocks far from the city center. Inexplicably in English—who could have possibly been the audience?—it read, “From Crude Oil, We Derive Confidence.”


As a visitor, I needed to register my whereabouts with the police. We went to an office near the National Assembly building, in a part of the city paved with yellow bricks. There was a very long line. It moved very slowly. Eventually, my future brother-in-law took me to buy postcards while his mother held our place. I was able to fill several postcards, address them, go to the central post office, buy stamps, and mail them. On our return, his mother had barely advanced in line. Finally, it was my turn and I immediately saw the problem. A lone woman sat at a manual typewriter laboriously hunting and pecking to complete the carbon forms. Clickety clack clickety clack clickety clack as the carriage moved across and then “ding” as she shifted the lever to begin again. I was fairly confident that Big Brother could not have been watching me altogether efficiently.

жълт паваж

The enormous pre-fabricated panel concrete block apartment complex where I had to report I was staying is called Druzhba (fellowship). The family apartment is still there and our base whenever we visit. All 199 “blocks” were quickly filled by people like Rumen’s parents fleeing the hard agricultural life of the villages for the capital city, so the government built the equally appealing Druzhba 2. In other parts of the city, there are similar complexes filled with rows and rows of concrete block apartment buildings, each with numerous entrances, each entrance with numerous apartments. Like Druzhba, they often have evocative names like Nadezhda (hope) and Mladost (youth) that belie their drab appearance. Nadezhda and Mladost each sprouted into five like named complexes. All of these complexes have been absorbed into Sofia proper for government purposes, but they function like an American city’s outlying suburbs, with a greater population than the city center and their own bustling markets, small stores, office buildings and small businesses. The blocks have stayed the same as when I first saw them in 1987, but now there is a good deal of development in and around them to serve the multiple generations of residents living in them. Instead of “From Crude Oil, We Derive Confidence” in English, now there is a nearby restaurant with a sign in Bulgarian reading “Pizza Sushi.”


Still, the drab gray blocks themselves are set up in rows, all right angles with none of the curves or organic feel of Sofia’s city center or of the villages— both of which show development that feels more human and more humane. The grid is hyper-organized and all the blocks are built with precisely the same materials and structure. Big Brother’s centralized planning did not extend to the spaces between the blocks; they are entirely undeveloped blocks of “no man’s land.” Druzhba, Nadezhda, Mladost, and countless others are quite literally the Soviet and Eastern European version of U.S. low-income, government-built “projects.” My husband used to say, “Now that they’ve made so many buildings in Sofia, it’s time to introduce architecture.” It’s too late to introduce architecture to complexes built over half a century ago and millions of people live there without the means to buy better elsewhere. And finances aside, it’s not easy to leave friends and extended family after so many decades.

Aesthetics or no, the blocks are home. My husband remembers their excitement at moving to Druzhba after years of living in one room and sharing a common kitchen, toilet and running water with their neighbors. Coming out onto the small balcony of their fifth floor apartment, he was fascinated seeing for the first time from so high a vantage point people on the street below. My in-laws were appreciative not only of the apartment itself, but of the view of Vitosha Mountain. Sofia is in a valley on Vitosha’s northeast foot and even the tallest, ugliest pre-fabricated concrete panel block cannot blot out the mountain’s beauty. In lighter winters, cottony white clouds lie below Vitosha’s snowline, which never fully melts even in summer. The manmade lake is reasonably maintained, with a walkway all around, a bridge, grassy areas, and now restaurants, a new playground, and a fitness center.


Once the 1989 changes happened, the government stopped asking for the nominal rent it had required and instead offered the possibility of ownership through a reasonable mortgage quickly paid off. From that point, the renovations within began as money and materials became available. A few years ago, my brother-in-law renovated the entire apartment down to the floorboards and it now has quite the Scandinavian aesthetic. You can renovate your apartment any way you wish without interference, but the public spaces—the elevator, the stairwells, the exterior walls—these require the cooperation of everyone who lives in your particular entrance.

When we returned to Bulgaria in 1993, it was summer. We frequently went out on the back balcony to water the many plants my mother-in-law tended there, especially the ever-blooming red mushkati (geraniums) that were her pride and which can be seen on block balconies throughout Bulgaria. One day we noticed that the adjacent old three-story, two-entrance block long predating Druzhba was being re-plastered and painted. As the weeks went on, it became clear that only one-half was receiving this treatment. Only the people living in one entrance had agreed to pay for the renovation. By the end of our stay, one-half remained with falling plaster and the other appeared brand new.


In June 1995, we moved to Sofia for a two-year stint. Hanging laundry on the back balcony one day, we saw that the other half of the old three-story block was being re-plastered and painted. Clearly the residents of this entrance now felt they had to maintain appearances with the other. But not all the residents in the entrance felt this way. There was a lone holdout and we knew this because the entire face of the entrance was re-plastered and painted except for a one-sixth square on the first floor. Two decades later, that one-sixth was still untouched. Perhaps the holdout was right since by January 2015 the rest of the building’s façade looked less than fresh, and the line between re-plastered and never touched was barely perceptible. The A4 size nekrolozi (death notices) may proliferate in the block entrances, the uninviting play equipment long consigned to decrepitude, but the blocks themselves solidly—perhaps eternally—continue. With so many people still dependent on them for housing, the only choice seems to be maintaining and improving them. Habitat for Humanity has a program to assist—take a look.